BRYNHILD’S HEL RIDE: An Excerpt from The Poetic Edda as Translated by Jeramy Dodds

       Helreið Brynhildar

When Brynhild died, they piled two pyres. The first was stoked for Sigurd; on the second, Brynhild burned. Wound in cloth, she was cremated in her wagon. Some say she drove that wagon all the way to Hel. But on her way, she was stopped by a Jotuness perched atop a grave mound.

          The Jotuness said:
  1. ‘Don’t saunter through my rock-hewn
    houselands; you’d be better bound
    to your weaving, not driving to evening
    with another lady’s man.

  2. ‘You know full well you’ve waded to the wrists
    in that man’s blood. Why are you here in my
    pebbled paradise, a gilded southern girl rambling
    with half a rock rolling round her rattlebrain?’

    Brynhild replies:

  3. ‘Don’t bother berating me, crag-hag.
    I’ve sacked whole coasts with the longboats –
    I guarantee that anyone who probes
    our pedigree will find me the better born.’

    The Jotuness said:

  4. ‘Yes, you are Budli’s daughter,
    Brynhild, born luckless into this world,
    but you conned Gjuki’s kin, doused their dazzling
    hearth-seats with your false fare-thee-wells.’

    Brynhild said:

  5. ‘Stupid sow, you must know the old news
    by now: Gjuki’s kin duped me, violated
    their vow, starved me of love. Me,
    the witty lady of this ironwood wagon!

  6. ‘If you’d like a nip of truth, we were eight sisters  
    reclining under an oak when that clever king stole
    our swan-robes; I was twelve when I promised
    myself to a prepubescent prince.

  7. [‘That king kindly raised me in his regal court
    with all the lavish pomp a girl should want.]
    But in Hlymdales, those who really knew me
    named me iron-helmed war-wraith.

  8. ‘So, with a swift downthrust I dispatched that old
    Goth king, Helmet-Gunnar, all the way to Hel –
    I gave Auda bragging rights for that bloodbath.
    And for this, Odin was livid with me.

  9. ‘In Skatalund he caught me in a cage of shields,
    their red-and-white rims domed over me;
    daring a man during night to shatter my sleep,
    a man who has never known  fear.

  10. ‘Fafnir’s gold-hoard had been won by this one man,
    the one who’s never felt fear. He sprung his steed over
    the blaze Odin lit in the brush, then stood, with sacks
    of gold, stock-still at the gates of my south hall.

  11. ‘That prince of Danes cantered his piebald mount,
    Grani, through my foster father’s endless halls,
    dishing out his gold hoard – a crown-opal of a man,
    a real Viking among a procession of shams.

  12. ‘Like chaste siblings, we shared a thin cot.
    For eight nights we shut eyes beside each other,
    never going at one another, never tapping
    our crush with an offhand brush or touch.

  13. ‘Then  I heard what I needn’t hear: I’d won
    fearless Sigurd through another’s conniving.
    His wife, Gudrun, acted the cuckold and accused
    me, Gjuki’s golden girl, of writhing with him.

  14. ‘Most couples live too long in catatonic lament,
    but not Sigurd and I. No fissure shall be struck
    between us. I’ll not be kept from him a moment
    more. Stand down, witch, sink into your mound!’


Jeramy Dodds's first collection of poems, Crabwise to the Hounds, won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. His poems have won the CBC Literary Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award. He holds an MA in Medieval Icelandic Studies.

In addition to appearing in Dodds's translation of The Poetic Edda, this poem originally appeared in Riddle Fence

Three Poems from Montreal Before Spring by Robert Melançon

One of the books we're most excited to be publishing this coming spring is Montreal Before Spring, a book of poems by Quebec francophone poet Robert Melançon translated by Donald McGrath. Melançon's verse is painterly, metaphysical, restrained and elegiac, qualities captured wonderfully in McGrath's translation. In fact, a poem from the forthcoming collection, "Elegy Written in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Park," just recently won The Malahat Review's first-ever Francophone Poetry Translation Contest. Judge Donald Winkler had this to say:
Donald McGrath has admirably rendered the cadence and tone of Robert Melançon’s limpid elegy. The poem’s muted music with its judicious internal rhyme links the poem not only with its French original, but with a venerable English tradition of elegiac verse.
The Fall 2014 issue of The Malahat Review (issue 188) is unique among Canadian periodicals in that it is exclusively devoted to literature in translation, both from Canada and abroad. In addition to running a thoughtful review of Dance With Snakes by Horacio Castellanos Moya (a violent, absurdist romp we like to say "reads as if  William T. Vollmann wrote a script for a film version of Grand Theft Auto directed by Quentin Tarantino)  they also ran an appreciative review of Robert Melançon's previous collection For As Far As The Eye Can See, which reviewer Marie Vautier calls "original and allusive" and which offers "a new view on ordinary sights in an unnamed city which can be recognized as Montreal." 

In an online interview for The Malahat with stephen e. leckie, McGrath talks about what drew him to the award-winning poem:
I liked the poem’s evocation of dark winter evenings in the city and the emotional darkness in it as well. When the speaker dismisses the dire conclusions he has come to as "hackneyed tropes," it is not to replace them with something more uplifting. He seems rather to have reached such a degree of disillusionment that the only thing left to do is something prosaic, "sensible," namely, return home so as not to catch cold. It’s a dispiriting perception but an emotionally honest one.
McGrath goes on to say that he chose to translate the book "because of its intimiste depictions of personal life and Montreal in their many respective and overlapping moods."

So without further ado, here are three poems from Montreal Before Spring, forthcoming in March 2015. 



I sense, close by and all around, the city
fused wholly with this darkness,
in this mass full of unknown things
called night. The bed is an island
or a boat. At the open window
a light breeze stirs, the wind flows
into the bedroom, outside it flows
through the leaves like a dry river.
You sleep, abandoned to the July heat
that the night does nothing to relieve;
your breath blends with the murmurs
of a gloom composed, it seems,
of swells of silence, indistinct noises,
whispers that lurk nearby. Far away,
the sound of a car engine builds
and fades. A call is heard,
draws near and flees, returns
and is lost in the air it sculpts.
Its the cry of the nighthawk
hunting above the low buildings. Sleep
rolls you into that Styx
called night. I watch you,
I envy you your peace. I adopt
the recumbent pose of a tomb effigy.
Soon, when I too will be asleep,

I hope I do not dream.



Evening approaches under a drawn
sky like a bed canopy.
I linger at days end to watch
the world dissolve in rain.

All I hear is its obstinate pitter-patter.
Its as if the gods were lurking, famished,
nearby, as if theyd come to stuff
everything into their nothing bags.

At my feet, a patch of grass glistens.
Youd think it alone had escaped
all that commotion. I pluck a few blades
as a viaticum, I inhale their chill perfume.



Your days will pass, one by one,
words in a breathless sentence strung
together without punctuation, your actions,
those thoughts that come at such a cost,
wont follow you, but if they do
it will be as perpetually vain regrets, little
will it matter, very little, whether you
betray or remain faithful, because each will
come to you in turn, everything will
be lost as if youd been dreaming, its like
a dream, the disorder of an old mans life
that comes back at the end, youll descend
into lower depths you dont suspect are there,
youll be seized, at times, by an unfathomable joy
before the expanse that evening will open up
where the streets run out; impassive, the world
will continue on its course, flowers
that will fade in autumn will come, snow
thatll melt like snow in the sun, each day
will bring with it the History youll throw out
with the newspaper, with your boredom, youll
have friendships that youll lose, love youll see
falling away from you, that youll try
in vain to hold onto, everything will be
given to you, everything taken away,
everything will come, everything pass away
like this night Ive pulled you from, now go.



Robert Melançon is one of Quebec’s most original poets. He won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for his collection Blind Painting and shared the Governor General’s Award for Translation with Charlotte Melançon for their French version of A.M. Klein’s The Second Scroll. A long-time translator of Canadian poet Earle Birney, Melançon has been the poetry columnist for the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir and the Radio-Canada program En Toutes Lettres. In 2013 Biblioasis published his collection For as Far as the Eye Can See in English. He lives in North Hatley, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.


 Donald McGrath has published two poetry collections, most recently The Port Inventory (Cormorant Books, 2012). His poem “Biarritz” was selected for the Web anthology of the 2012 Montreal International Poetry Prize. He was awarded the 2014 Malahat Review Poetry Translation Prize for his translation of Robert Melançon’s “Elegy Written in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Park.”He lives in Montreal. 

What Africa Does the African Writer Write About? by Mia Couto

Editor's Note: This essay was originally delivered as an address given at the award ceremony for the International Prize for the Twelve Best African Novels, Cape Town, South Africa, July 2002.

The theme of this event is the relationship of the writer with the struggle for a world that is more humane and more democratic. One could begin with this question: what is the writer's responsibility towards democracy and human rights? It is total. For the writer's greatest commitment is towards truth and freedom. To fight the cause of truth, the writer uses an untruth: literature. But it is a lie that doesn't lie.

However, the writer has other commitments. One of the duties of an African writer is to be willing, in certain circumstances, to stop being a writer and to not think of himself as “African”.

Let me explain: the writer is someone who should be open to travelling through other experiences, other cultures, other lives. He should be willing to deny his own self. For only by doing this will he journey between identities. And that is what a writer is – a traveller of identities, a smuggler of souls. There isn't a writer who doesn't share this condition: a creature of the frontier, someone who lives by a window, the window that looks out over innermost territories.

Our role is to create the guiding principles for a line of thinking that belongs more to us, so that the assessment of our place and our time may cease to be made on the basis of categories created by others. And so that we may go on to tackle that which seems to us to be most natural and beyond question: concepts of human rights, democracy, Africanness. It is precisely our relationship with Africa that I would like to question here. Why this  “Africanness,” raised to the level of identity, has been the object of continual mystification.

Some people hurriedly seek some sort of essential quality for what they call “Africanness”. On the surface, they are busy seeking the roots for their pride in being African. But, in the end, they show a similarity to colonial ideology. Africa cannot be reduced to a simple entity, easy to understand and to be accommodated in the compendia of Africanists. Our continent is the result of diversities and hybridities.

When we talk of hybridities, we have to be careful, as if a hybrid product were somehow less “pure.” But there's no such thing as purity when one is talking of the human species. And if we enter into hybrid relationships, it means that someone else, on the other side, has received something that was ours.

2014 Neustadt Prize winner Mia Couto's
 first book of non-fiction in English,
forthcoming from Biblioasis in April 2015
The defenders of African purity redouble their efforts to find its essence. Some set off to prospect in the deep past. Others seek to situate African authenticity in the rural tradition. As if the modernity that Africans are inventing in the urban areas weren't itself similarly African. This restricted and restrictive vision of what is genuine may well be one of the main reasons why literature in Africa is viewed with suspicion. Literature goes hand in hand with modernity. And we lose our “identity” if we cross the frontier of traditionalism: that's what the prejudices of the hunters of ethnic and racial virginity tell us.

The opposition between the traditional – seen as the pure, uncontaminated side of African culture – and the modern is a false contradiction. For the rural cosmovision is equally the product of exchanges between different cultural worlds. The vast majority of young people from the rural culture of my country dream of being Michael Jackson or Eddy Murphy. In a word, they dream of being Black Americans.

“Here I am,” wrote Léopold Senghor, “trying to forget Europe in the heart of Senegal.” The Senegalese poet and statesman never managed to forget. He was himself a bridge between two continents. Nor could he have been otherwise. To forget Europe cannot be to eliminate the internal conflicts that have shaped our very identities. Europe was inside the African poet and it could not be forgotten by imposition.

Between the invitation to forget Europe and the dream of being American, the solution can only be seen as a step forward. African intellectuals shouldn't be ashamed of their predilection for hybridity. They don't need to correspond to the image of European myths concerning them. They don't need artifices or fetishes in order to be African. They are Africans just as they are, urban dwellers with a mixed and tangled up soul, because Africa has every right to modernity, it has every right to assume its hybridities, which it initiated itself and which make it more diverse and therefore richer.

We need to escape from this trap, and this can only be done by those Africans prepared to accept, without fear, their membership of a culturally mixed world. Some self-styled Africanists, no matter how much they may resist so-called European concepts, nevertheless remain prisoners of these same concepts. Nor is it that they attach importance to them, but that importance is accorded for negative reasons. It's not a question of finding identity by retreating into some ancestral purity. The most ferocious defenders of African cultural nationalism are designing houses that are contrary to, but still within the overall framework of the architecture of the Other, of that which we call Western. A fetishistic attitude, turned towards customs, folklore, tradition, is of little value. Colonial domination invented a considerable proportion of Africa's past and tradition. Some African intellectuals, ironically, in order to negate Europe, ended up embracing European colonial concepts.

In fact, the obsession with classifying what is and is not “African” began in Europe. Ethnography and anthropology, disciplines that, until recently, sought to identify essence rather than process, also trod that path. The discoverers of identities were like those navigators of the sixteenth century: anxious, some of them, to baptize territories that had, in fact, long been baptized; others, in a hurry to label population groups whose characteristics they didn't even know: tribes, ethnic groups, clans.

Think, for instance, of the culture produced by Africans. Instead of valuing the diversity of such production and seeing the book as a cultural product, literary appreciation is often substituted by a more or less ethnographic set of values. The question posed is the extent to which the author  is “authentically African.” No one knows exactly what it is to be “authentically African.” But the book and its author still need to undergo this test of identity. Or a certain idea of identity.

Demands are made of an African writer that are not made of a European or American writer.  Insistence is made on proof of authenticity. Questions are asked about the degree to which it is ethnically genuine. No one questions whether José Saramago represents Portuguese culture. It's irrelevant to know whether James Joyce corresponds to the cultural standards of this or that European ethnic group. Why should African writers have to show such cultural passports? This happens  because people persist in thinking of the production of these African writers as belonging to the domain of anthropology or ethnography. What they are producing isn't literature but a transgression of what is accepted as traditionally African.

The writer isn't just someone who writes. He’s someone who produces thought, someone capable of pollinating others with feeling and delight.

More than this, the writer challenges the basis of thought itself. He goes further than challenging the limits of political correctness. He subverts the very criteria that define what is correct, he questions the boundaries of reason.

Mozambican writers nowadays fulfil a commitment of an ethical type: to reflect on this Mozambique but to dream of another Mozambique. They run the risk, like all artists in every other country, of being devoured by the same nation they helped to liberate.

We have passed from a period in which our heroes always ended up by being killed – Eduardo Mondlane, Samora Machel, Carlos Cardoso – into a time when heroes are not even born. We await the renewal of a state of passion that we have already experienced once, while hoping for the re-kindling of love between writing and the nation as a home we can dream of. What we want and dream of is a nation and a continent that no longer need heroes.



MIA COUTO was born in Beira, Mozambique in 1955. In the years after his country gained independence from Portugal, he was director of the Mozambican state news agency, and worked as a newspaper editor and journalist. Since the 1980s, he has combined the profession of environmental biologist with that of writer.
            Couto is the author of more than 25 books of fiction, essays and poems that have been translated into more than 20 languages. He has won major literary prizes in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Portugal, Brazil and Italy. African critics chose his novel Sleepwalking Land as one of the twelve best African books of the 20th century.
In 2013 Couto was awarded the Camões Prize, given to a Portuguese-language writer for his life’s work. In 2014 he received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, sometimes dubbed “the American Nobel.”   Couto’s books have been bestsellers in Africa, Europe and South America.
            Mia Couto lives with his family in Maputo, Mozambique, where he works as an environmental consultant.


DAVID BROOKSHAW has translated eight other books by Mia Couto, including The Tuner of Silences, Sleepwalking Land, Under the Frangipani and The Last Flight of the Flamingo. He is Professor Emeritus in Lusophone Studies at the University of Bristol, with a special interest in postcolonial literatures and literary translation.